“Libertarianism”, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand

The “libertarians” at Reason.com (or one of them, at least) jump on the rightly reviled Nancy MacLean — author of Democracy in Chains — for having said that economist James M. Buchanan (a target of her book) and other early leaders of the limited-government movement “seem to be on the autism spectrum.”

A stopped watch is right twice a day. MacLean isn’t a stopped watch, but she’s right for once.

There’s something about so-called libertarians — at least the ones whose writings I’m familiar with — that led me once upon a time to say following in “The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament” (block quotation format omitted for ease of reading):

[My] migration from doctrinaire libertarian to libertarian-conservative took place in the last decade, that is, since I began blogging in 2004. Why did my political world-view shift at so late an age? Because I came to realize, without the benefit of familiarity with Haidt’s work, that one’s political views tend to be driven by one’s temperament. That struck me as an irrational way of choosing a political stance, so — despite my own “libertarian” temperament — I came around to a libertarian brand of conservatism, one that I have sometimes called Burkean-Hayekian libertarianism (or conservatism).

The typical “libertarian” — the kind of pseudo-libertarian that I refuse to be — is stridently against religion, for “open” borders, for same-sex “marriage,” for abortion, and against war (except possibly when, too late, he sees the whites of his enemy’s eyes). Mutually beneficial coexistence based on trust and respect deriving from the common observance of traditional, voluntarily evolved social norms? Are you kidding? Only “libertarians” know how their inferiors (the “masses”) should live their lives, and they don’t blink at the use of state power to make it so. How “liberal” of them.

What temperament is typical of the pseudo-libertarian? Here’s [Todd] Zywicki [writing at The Volokh Conspiracy]:

Haidt finds that [pseudo] libertarians place a much higher emphasis on rationality and logical reasoning than do other ideologies. But that doesn’t mean that [pseudo] libertarian beliefs are less-motivated by unexamined psychological predispositions than other ideologies. Again, take the idea that [pseudo] libertarians believe that “consistency” is a relevant variable for measuring the moral worth or persuasiveness of an ideology. But that is not a self-justifying claim: one still must ask why “consistency” maters or should matter. So while [pseudo] libertarians may place a higher stated value on rational argumentation, that does not mean that [pseudo] libertarian premises are any less built upon subjective psychological foundations.

Zywicki links to an article by Haidt and others, “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians” (PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042366), which arrives at this diagnosis of the pseudo-libertarian condition:

[They] have a unique moral-psychological profile, endorsing the principle of liberty as an end and devaluing many of the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives. Although causal conclusions remain beyond our current reach, our findings indicate a robust relationship between [pseudo] libertarian morality, a dispositional lack of emotionality, and a preference for weaker, less-binding social relationships [emphasis added].

That’s an uncomfortable but accurate description of my temperamental leanings, which reflect my almost-off-the-chart introversion. As the old saying goes, it takes one to know one. Thus, as I have written,

[p]seudo-libertarian rationalists seem to believe that social bonding is irrelevant to cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior; life, to them, is an economic arrangement.


[They] have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society….

And here:

Pseudo-libertarianism …. posits a sterile, abstract standard of conduct — one that has nothing to do with the workaday world of humanity….

That is not libertarianism. It is sophomoric dream-spinning.


[P]seudo-libertarianism [is a] contrivance[], based … on … an unrealistic, anti-social view of humans as arms-length negotiators…. Pseudo-libertarianism can be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe-dream….

To the doctrinaire pseudo-libertarian, a perfect world would be full of cold-blooded rationalists. Well, perfect until he actually had to live in such a world.

End of quotation. (I especially like the phrase “introverted myopia”.)

What is my own “libertarian” temperament? This is from “Empathy Is Overrated” (block quotation format omitted again):

I scored 12 (out of 80) on a quiz that accompanies the article. My score, according to the key at the bottom, places me below persons with Asperger’s or low-functioning autism, who score about 20. My result is not a fluke; it is consistent with my MBTI type: Introverted-iNtuitive-Thinking-Judging (INTJ), and with my scores on the Big-five personality traits:

Extraversion — 4th percentile for males over the age of 21/11th percentile for males above the age of 60

Agreeableness — 4th percentile/4th percentile

Conscientiousness – 99th percentile/94th percentile

Emotional stability — 12th percentile/14th percentile

Openness — 93rd percentile/66th percentile

End of quotation.

I recite all of this background because I was reminded of my characterization of “libertarians” by Arnold Kling, who today quotes from a piece by Shanu Athiparambath, “Ayn Rand Had Asperger’s Syndrome“:

Ayn Rand, in all likelihood, knew nothing about the autism spectrum. But she could draw from her own life and experiences. The creator of Howard Roark worked obsessively, evening after evening. She rarely went out. Ayn Rand was extremely nervous before public functions, but there was a violent intensity about her. She observed, rightly, that boredom preserves the precarious dignity of people who love small talk. Her sensitivity to cruelty and injustice has largely escaped her readers. All her life, she collected things, and kept them in separate file folders. Her grandmother gifted her a chest of drawers to store her collections, and her mother complained about all the rubbish she collected. She loved ordering and categorizing things, something very fundamental to the autistic cognitive style. Ayn Rand ticks way too many boxes.

Kling, himself, wrote this ten years ago:

In Rand’s study…There were more than two hundred grocer’s cartons, each divided into sections and filled to the brim with colored stones Rand had collected and sorted.

This is from Anne C. Heller’s biography of Ayn Rand. Based on reading Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy, I would view this stone-sorting behavior as a symptom of someone who was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Heller does not mention autism or Aspergers’, but there is much in her biography of Rand to lead one to speculate that Rand was a high-functioning individual with that sort of disorder.

I don’t believe for a second that Rand was unique among “libertarians”. On the contrary, I believe that she was normal (as “libertarians” go), and that her “introverted myopia” drove her political philosophy.

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